Sweet Woodruff

Sweet Woodruff growing in the 6/15 Green Herb Garden
About ten years ago I bought a sweet woodruff plant from the Greenmarket at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.  I put it in the postage stamp garden in the front of my brownstone where it lived for a few years before I transplanted it to the newly renovated herb garden at 6/15 Green Community Garden.  The first spring that it came back in it's new spot I decided to try to make May Wine.  If memory serves I picked several blooming branches and twisted or wrung them out to bruise them and stuffed them into a bottle of German Rhine wine.  Then I recorked the bottle and let it sit for about a week before I filtered and drank it.  I remember loving it, the woodruff had added a green and sort of balsamic note to the sweet wine.

The wine was meant to be drunk on May Day and I never got the timing right again and so never made it again.  It's a shame that I denied myself all those years simply because I couldn't drink it on the actual day.  This year, with spring coming early, I had a chance to catch it in time, not to make May Wine, but to make liqueur.

Sweet Woodruff (Asperula odorata) was used as a medicine in the Middle Ages, mostly as either a poltice for cuts and wounds or a strong decoction for stomach troubles.  It is known mostly for its sweet scent due to its high coumarin content, the chemical known for giving new mown hay its distinctive odor.  Bundles and garlands of woodruff were hung around the house in the heat of summer to "attemper the air, cool and make fresh the place, to the delight and comfort of such as are therein" and is reported to "make a man merry" according to Gerard.  The dried herb may also be kept among linens to sweeten them and protect them from insects.  It was also once used to stuff beds.

Sweet Woodruff drying on parchment
I've read that the coumarins in the plant don't come out until the plant dries.  I picked a small amount and left it to dry overnight on a parchment lined rack.  Right around the 24 hour mark I noticed that the leaves had taken on the distinct smell of fresh mown hay.  It was delicate but it was there.  I thought I'd leave it another day and see if it deepened.  The following morning the leaves had lost their scent almost entirely.  I picked another bunch and kept an eye on it around the 24 hour mark and began my maceration then.  I wrung it out much like I did with the wine and poured a cup of vodka over it.  The liquid began to take on a lovely pale green which deepened to the color of good fruity olive oil.  After two days I decanted it.  It tastes and smells of grass with a honeyed hay note.  I've made three successive batches.  I'd like to try sweetening some to make liqueur, and save some to add to the herb liqueur I'd like to make from the 6/15 Herb Garden this summer.  And of course some of it will be experimented with in Cocktail Lab.  I'll run out eventually but it will be just another thing to look forward to next spring.

Three batches of Sweet Woodruff Vodka

May Day Violets

When I was a child my mother smelled of violets.  She wore Yardley April Violets and when Yardley stopped making it my father went on a mission to hunt down any remaining bottles.  As a compensation I always buy my mother violet scented things for her birthday, Christmas, Mother's Day, etc.  A few years ago Yardley made a limited edition and I was able to buy some for her for Christmas.  My mom is not an overly emotional woman but I think I saw her tear up.

Violets are a funny little plant.  The violets native to this area are lovely but have no discernable fragrance.  If you're lucky enough to find a patch of viola odorata, the sweetly scented violet, you can have one good whiff before the ionones in the plant will knock out your sense of smell for a while.  Another funny thing about the violet is that the pretty purple "flower" they send up in the spring is really not the plant's true flower at all.  The true flower with all the sexual parts comes up late in the summer.  They're white and form at the base of the plant and are loaded with seeds.  The purple flower in the spring is just for show!

Violet leaves, with their heart shape, are nice to nibble on in the spring in a salad, as well as the non-sexual flowers.  A salad dotted with violets is a lovely thing indeed.  Violet leaves are mucilaginous meaning that they coat and soothe tissues when taken internally.  They are also known to break up cysts and masses, particular to the breast.  I usually harvest leaves late in the summer just before the true flower comes out and leave them to dry for tisane.

My mom and her best friend, Pat Harvey, used to pick them when they were neighbors on the same street when they were young mothers back in the '50's.  I got to sit next to Pat at a wedding this past weekend and reminded her of this.  So this post is for my mom and her best friend, Happy May Day!